an adventure deep into ‘the living forest,’ with joan maloof (book giveaway)

I’VE BEEN ADVENTURING deep into the forest, with what feels like a fresh sensibility, a whole new set of eyes, I guess you could say, thanks to the collaborative effort by photographer Robert Llewellyn, and environmental scientist Joan Maloof. Their new book is called “The Living Forest: A Visual Journey into the Heart of the Woods.”

Coauthor Joan Maloof is founder of the Old Growth Forest Network, aimed to preserve, protect and promote the country’s few remaining stands of old growth forest, and she’s a professor emeritus at Salisbury University in Maryland. She joined me to talk about complex the organism that is the forest, and I learned how almost half of all our rain is dependent on the forest’s “exhale” of water, how the trees with all their light-detecting cells can “see” different colors and intensities of light and respond accordingly, and much more.

Read along as you listen to the Nov. 27, 2017 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here). Plus: Enter to win a copy of the new book by commenting at the very bottom of the page. (Below, co-authors Llewellyn and Maloof.)

‘the living’ forest, with joan maloof


Q. What a productive year you’re having, Joan.

A. I know, it’s crazy. “Nature’s Temples” came out just exactly a year ago, and then already “The Living Forest.”

Q. How did this matchup between you and photographer Robert Llewellyn come to pass?

A. I had already met Robert Llewellyn, because we have a lot of tree people that support the Old Growth Forest Network in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Robert Llewellyn lives just outside of Charlottesville in this beautiful property surrounded by acres of forest. He has done books, such as “The Remarkable Trees of Virginia,” and “Seeing Trees,” and “Seeing Flowers”—these amazing photographic works.

With the Old Growth Forest Network, at one point we wanted to use one of his images, the one of a tiny oak seedling sprouting from an acorn with the roots there. It seemed like the perfect thing for our young little organization. We wanted to grow strong and mighty as an oak, but we were just getting started. I just gave him a call and he got the on the telephone and said yes, we were welcome to use that for no cost, so that was very nice.

The next time I was in Charlottesville giving talks, I went to visit him personally, and we talked about forests, and his photography, and I got to see his incredible studio, which is like a museum. We developed a relationship that way and a conversation about forests. I read his books, and he read my books. I was working on the book “Nature’s Temples,” which I call it my science-y book; we’ve talked about it before.

Q. Yes, we have talked about it, yes. [Read or listen to that interview on old-growth forests.]

A. It has the evidence for the biodiversity in old-growth forests, and I was awarded a writer’s retreat to live in Southern France for a month to work on that book, the draft of that book. That was a great experience, as you might imagine. One day I got a call from the States, and it was Robert Llewellyn, and he said that he was inviting me to be the writer on his next book, which was going to be an exploration of the Eastern deciduous forest ecosystem. Of course, I was thrilled, and immediately said yes, I will do it.

Q. Yes, yes!

A. Just as soon as this other one’s done, and it was almost done, so that’s how I ended up with two books back to back so quickly.

Q. We’ve spoken before, as we were just saying, when your previous book “Nature’s Temples” came out. The latest book, “The Living Forest,” is big. It’s big in size, it’s big in subject matter, but at the same time it’s sort of very intimate and full of these tiny little details like, there’s delicious pictures of millipedes [photo below] and salamanders and fungi, all kinds of things that most of us visiting forests might not have noticed, or at least not understood. What was the mission of the book, and how’s it different from the ones you’ve written previously?

A. With the previous books, when we looked at forests and how we’ve treated them in this country and in the world, there can be a lot almost sorrow or regret, or feel like we’ve made some mistakes, and the evidence shows that also.

But this book I wanted to be the opposite of that. I wanted this book to be the celebration for how the forest does work perfectly as this integrated ecosystem all on its own. In this book I stayed away from all the gloom and doom and just focused on the rightness of it. As you pointed out, the scale was very important in this book, because it goes from the largest of the large—these beautiful forested vista and the Smoky Mountains, and the Shenandoah—all the way down to the tiniest little thing in the soil.

It was quite a challenge in the beginning: How do we tell that complete story of a forest that’s connected in so many different dimensions, and scales, and even through time. That was part of the joy of crafting this holistic type story, and drawing attention to all these connections. Robert had the skills to be able to do that on every level, which was remarkable also, because often photographers will specialize in either the very large or the very small, or in the middle somewhere. He has the full range of talent and equipment to deal with it.

Q. That’s why I said I think it feels very big, because you’re seeing from the canopy, you’re looking down into herons’ rooks. Rooks, is that what they’re called?—nests of herons.

A. The rookery of the blue herons, yes.

Q. Then you’re crawling around down below with the little creatures I was mentioning before, and you’re at the roots. You’re all over the place.

A. Even at one point, because he had provided me … he’d been already photographing for two years by the time he invited me to write this. He gave me folders full of these amazing photographs. This is the raw material of it, which I drew from to put all this together, but still, there were certain places where I thought, oh, I want to talk more about the larval salamander, or I want to discuss the stomata, the pores and leaves.

I also gave Robert this list of things that we needed in addition. [Laughter.] He went on these, he called them treasure hunts, and he got people to help him, and then went on treasure hunts. For example, I said, “We need a closeup of a leaf, super-closeup of a leaf,” so he gave me a closeup of leaf. I said “We need it closer,” and he gave me a closer one. I said, “We need it even closer. Do you have a microscope?” He says, “I do!” For that one we finally got so close that we could see the pores on the leaf, and we used a microscope to do that, and ended up providing a beautiful image for that.

Q. When you said you wanted stomata, you meant you wanted them. [Photo below.]

A. Yes.

Q. You weren’t kidding around.

A. We had so much fun then, because Robert knew in theory that the leaves had pores that did all this work, but he had never seen it with his own eyes through the microscope, so there he was looking. He got to see things in a new way, and he was just amazed at how there were like little mouths that control so much of our atmosphere.

Q. One of the chapters in the book is called “A Deep Breath,” and you’re making me think of that chapter just as you’re speaking right now. Let’s talk a little bit about that, about how is the forest taking a deep breath? Or maybe it is a deep breath—the organism is a deep breath.

A. On so many different scales, right? Also, because it could be the deep breath of that individual little stomata that’s opened all the way going, “Oh conditions are just right, I’ve got plenty of water and the sun is shining, and I’m just going to go for it and open this pore all the way, and exchange as many materials as I can,”

To the deep breath of the whole forest. That would be things going in and out of those stomata all at once. The inhale of the forest during the daylight hours would be the inhale of Carbon dioxide, and those leaves are taking that in because the Carbon dioxide is the basis of those sugars that it builds with photosynthesis, and then stores in all of the wood that we see, all of the flowers, and all of the leaves that’s actually making the forest. The inhale of the Carbon dioxide, and if we could measure—well, we can measure the Carbon dioxide in the forest—and we could see that it drops down in the daytime when the forest is taking that inhale, and then it goes back up at night when the forest cells are continuing to work, but they’re not doing photosynthesis.

The other part of that forest breathing has to do with the water vapor. We know that those roots are taking in water, and drawing it all the way up the stem in those vessels, all the way out to every leaf cell. Only 10 percent of that water is used in the photosynthetic process. 90 percent is just lost out of those pores. We say lost, but I should say emitted. That water vapor enters the atmosphere and is carried aloft where it cools off and then will be carried on the prevailing winds, and turn into rain somewhere else for another forest.

Q. Yes.

A. It’s beautiful, I mean talk about large scale. Now, we’re on the global scale there. Almost half of all our rainfall is dependent on this forest exhale of water.

Q. I think the subhead of that chapter “A Deep Breath” is “Lungs of the Land.” Indeed, right, that’s what the forest is.

I live in a surrounded by this 7,000-acre state park, sort of a forest, adjacent to another one across the state line, just beyond my house, and lots other privately held large tracts of wooded land. I’m not a stranger to the woods, but when I was looking at it with you two, you and Robert as my guides, paging through this book and reading this book, it really felt different, as if it was much, more than the trees.

I mentioned some of the other creatures, but even just when I looked at the trees in the pictures, they just seem different to me. How do you describe the forest? We just said it’s the lungs of the land, it’s a deep breath, but what else, what are some of its other aspects?

A. One thing that I like to emphasize is that a forest is more than just trees, right? We’re talking about the trees, and we tend to think of the trees, but the trees are really more like the bones, the structure.

Yes, we need that structure of the forest, those big bones to give it the dimensional qualities, but there’s so much more happening than just the trees. There are the insects that feed on the trees, and the reptiles and amphibians that feed on the insects, and the fungi that’s growing underground and occasionally sending up a mushroom that then is eaten by a snail, or by a turtle. The lichens that are growing on the rocks that are shaded by the trees.

In this book, we try to include all of those dimensions of the forest. It’s one thing to just say that the forest includes all those dimensions, but then when we are able to capture in visual representation, like in the photographs, one of the parts of it—whether it’s the lichens or the snails or the turtles or the mushrooms—then that itself becomes a place where we can recognize the beauty of the forest, which is another whole layer as far as what it does to us emotionally.

When I walk through the forest, and I would suggest this to others; yes, appreciate the trees and the individual trees, but try to feel the whole. And also try to leave yourself open for those moments of surprise, whether it’s the pattern of a root across a rock, or the most perfect fall color pattern you’ve ever seen on a leaf, or whatever it is. Leave your spirit and energy open for appreciation.

Q. Speaking of little surprises that I found along the way, I learned so many things that I’ve wondered about and I’ve asked people about, and I couldn’t get a clear answer. I got the clear answer, so it was a happy surprise.

For instance, that you just mentioned fungi. Where I live there’s a lot of evidence, in the older trees especially, of the shelf fungi [photo above]. I had also, a million years ago, heard the word conk, and I didn’t know what was the difference between a conk and a shelf fungus. Sure enough you explained, the ones [photo below] that are sort of shaped like hooves, like an animal’s hoof that are sort of downward curved, those are the conks. It was little things like that, again, that was like that intimacy, that you were teaching me not just the look, but you were giving me the language.

Another thing I’m crazy about, moths. A lot of people don’t go into the forest at night, it might seem scary or whatever, but moths are one thing that you’ll see if you go out at night. I didn’t know how they escaped from being eaten by bats. I can’t hear bats, except for maybe some clicking occasionally in certain species I think you can hear. Bats with their echolocation, their sonar, whatever is, I guess the moths can hear that?

A. Yes, some moths can hear that. They can avoid the bats, and some can even jam the radar of the bats and trick them, and make their own little sounds that we can’t hear.

Q. Everybody’s trying to get a meal, everyone’s trying to survive until tomorrow, everybody’s feeding and also offering themselves as food in some way. It’s just this community of interdependence. I think that’s really what I got a lot of detail in the book. I want to ask you about another chapter, the chapter called “Eyes All Over.” Eyes, E-Y-E-S, if people are listening, not reading. Can we talk about your assertion that trees can see? [Laughter.]

A. Sure. [Laughter.]

Q. O.K. Joan, tell us about this now.

A. We’ll start with our eyes. We have these parts of our bodies that are sensitive to light, and how we see light? We have these cells in the back of our retinas that contain pigments, and when this light hits these pigments, then it causes a reaction, a change in another molecule that can send a message. In our case, to the neurons to our brain saying, “Oh, you saw something; you saw light.” Also, the light that we see can also affect our hormones. As we know, if people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD, some people this time of year are just starting to feel that perhaps coming on. That is the reaction to what is coming in through our retinas, or not coming in.

When you look at—we’ll talk about trees this time—a tree leaf, each of those cells in the leaf contains in this green leaf these pigments that are light-detecting. Light is so important to the plants, that’s how they make their food.

Q. Right.

A. These pigments, just like the pigments in our eyes, change structure depending on what type of light is hitting them, and that causes a reaction also in the plants, the same way we have a reaction. Instead of it going through their neurons and to their brain saying “You’ve just seen something,” instead it goes directly to the hormonal system of the plant. The plant will produce certain chemicals, hormone chemicals, depending on how much light they saw, how many hours in a day, or whether it was green light or blue light, because these photosynthetic cells can tell the difference in the wavelengths, the quality of light.

A leaf knows if it’s being shaded by another tree or by a building, depending on the wavelength that comes through. It also knows if it’s mid-day or early morning or late afternoon, depending on the quality of the wavelength.

I don’t want to get too geeky about this, but extrapolating in my mind—my mind says O.K., if these plants can sense these wavelengths, and they’ll do certain things depending on the wavelengths, like make berries or change colors or drop their leaves. That means if I wear a red jacket into the forest, that’s reflecting a different wavelength than if I wore a black jacket into the forest. In a way, although I haven’t read the scientific data on this specifically, I think the photosynthetic leaves can also sense the colors that we present to them. That’s how the forest is seeing us, too.

Q. Oh boy, so the plant knows the season of the year, and the time of day, and the intensity and so forth. Like you say, where the light fits into the spectrum, all the different qualities of light in the same way that we do.

A. Exactly. We can close the window shades, or open the door, or flip on a light switch. The trees can’t do any of that, but they do respond, they respond ever so slowly, and only by the process of growth. The response could be chemical that will cause a change in growth, it’ll cause the berries to form, the berries to ripen, the buds to form. Or, it will cause the branch to grow in this direction and not the other direction. It’s a response, but it’s a very slow and graceful response.

Q. I guess I want to ask you something about fall, because here we are. The leaves have been going and going and going. I’m in the North.

A. Going, going, gone. [Laughter.]

Q. Yes. Sometimes they don’t fall, all of them don’t fall. One of my favorite words is the word marcescent, I think that’s how you say it.

A. Yes.

Q. People might see in oak trees where the leaves are withered, they’re brown, but they stay up there. Tell me something about leaves falling—or not.

A. The usual pattern in a deciduous tree, those are trees that drop their leaves, are that the color changes, the green pigments get recycled the red is actually like a sunscreen pigment that’s made to protect the leaf. Eventually, and again this is a response to the trees seeing the light and knowing if fall’s coming, they will produce a layer, like a scar tissue, at the very base of the leaf. That will eventually cause the leaf to break off right at that point, at the base of the petiole.

Some trees as you know, like the oak, and also the beech, they don’t drop their leaves in the fall. They’ll hold onto their brown leaves, and usually drop them in the spring. We don’t really understand why there’s that difference, but we know that there is. Some people have speculated that with the beech trees, that the dry, dead leaves may make them less tasty to the deer that might want to browse them.

Q. Yes, I’ve read that.

A. I thought that was very interesting. Again, we can just appreciate it with our hearts and spirits, too, and see how beautiful they are. If you have a tree, like a maple that normally would drop its leaves in the fall, and that doesn’t happen, that’s a signal that something has gone wrong in that system, because that tree normally should have made that abscission zone that caused the leaf to drop off. Sometimes it’s what the plant normally does, but sometimes it’s unusual.

Q. Leaves fall, and sometimes they don’t.

enter to win ‘the living forest’

I’LL BUY a copy of “The Living Forest” by Joan Maloof and Robert Llewellyn–a great gift for the nature-lover on your holiday list, or yourself–for one lucky reader. To enter, simply comment in the box at the very bottom of the page, after the last reader comment, by answering this question:

When was your last walk in the woods, and where?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in,” and I will, but an answer is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight on Tuesday, December 5, 2017. Good luck to all. U.S. only.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Nov. 27, 2017 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Photos from “The Living Forest” copyright by Robert Llewellyn; used with permission. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)


  1. Thomas L. says:

    The last time I walked in the woods was this past weekend, taking a break from the gardening. There is a city park a few blocks from my house. My dog and I walk past the bluff where the park is located, on our frequent walks. Once in a while we wander up the path into the wooded Mississippi River bluff and venture into the hardwood forst. Both of us love our simple little excursions. Lots to be said for the simple life, the simple pleasures.

  2. Carol says:

    Last time I sought out calm and nature, by walking in the woods of a nearby park was far too long ago.! You have reminded me to
    re-center myself, and to do so in the near future. Count me in please!

  3. Reid says:

    Last weekend I enjoyed the last warm day in MN before winter set in its bone chilling wind chill in the single degrees. It was a balmy 50 degrees with a thick humidity, smelling of life. I could feel the forest breathing. I went to a woods within walking distance. A small river serpentine along the path.

  4. margaret says:

    AND THE WINNER IS: Trevor. Thank you all for your comments on this topic — fun to read where you all have wandered (or wish to wander).

  5. Daniel says:

    I’ve retired and live in the forest . I see bugs, spiders, lizards, snakes/non venomous , bears, cougars, bats, to name a few . Plus life in the trees moss, ferns, mushrooms . I’m seeing undestirbed forest floor/ground . Learning about natural remedies . Your book is one I will add to my library. Thanks

  6. Mi Krumm says:

    Just listened to this podcast while driving home. The podcast was great and I’ll have to listen to it again. The book sounds really interesting and I want to read it. I am curious to also test its claims again the general claims of others. Very neat stuff and I look forward to hearing more of your podcasts and reading what you write.

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